Libtelco, Hosting, and Such

Here’s another update on ICT in Liberia, the progress and the challenges. First of all I had the chance to tour the downtown offices of Libtelco. Libtelco, formerly known as the Liberian Telecommunications Company (LTC), is a state owned telecom operator. Back before the war LTC owned all the land lines in the country. Then the war came, all the lines were looted so the rebels could sell the copper, and then the wireless operators came in. So LTC has been rebranded as Libtelco and is hoping to get a piece of the market. I’ll talk more about that later. But first the cool stuff.

Libtelco, battery arrayLibtelco, industrial UPSsI’m a sucker for redundant power systems in a country with no reliable source of electricity. So on the left is a picture of Libtelco’s massive battery back-up. I wish I could wow you with impressive numbers and words like “mega-watts”, but all I can remember is that it’s big. They have everything in triplicate to ensure zero down time. On the right is a pic of their industrial sized UPSs. They use these when switching between their generator, the Liberian Electric Company, and the battery back-up to ensure a seamless transition.

Libtelco, gateway to other telecoms, close upLibtelco, sun billing serversOn the left you see a shot of their gateway with the other operators in the country. All of this is over microwave links and then E1 lines. Sadly, this is a voice only gateway, no data interconnect exists in the country for the time being. I’ll also talk about this more later.  On the right is a shot of their Sun powered billing system. All very impressive for Liberia.

Libtelco has built out a CDMA network in the Monrovia area, it’s interesting that they departed from the usual GSM which is ubiquitous in Liberia, and most of Africa for that matter. They’re hopes are to leverage CDMAs faster data rates (compared to 2G GSM technologies, but not 3G and 4G) to provide ISP services to organizations in Monrovia, and fixed wireless services like faxes and PBXs. Libtelco is also building a data center for hosting servers.

I must admit I’m a bit unsure of the market for these servers. I’ve been told that they sold out of their wireless modems for the ISP service, but that the sales of wireless land lines and faxes haven’t been so hot. I’ve also heard that their ISP service drops out on occasion. I haven’t used it enough to know if it drops out anymore than the other ISPs here, but I hope they get this resolved soon.

A while ago I talked about a project I worked on where PDAs were used to collect data in the field and then send the data back to Monrovia via the cellular GPRS data networks in the country. Again in September I worked to help do another round of data collection. However, this time the VSAT that we had used for a static IP address to host our server was unavailable, so we needed another place for hosting. Our server runs on a 12″ Thinkpad, being so small I knew that all we really needed is someone to let us sit the laptop on their desk, plug it in to a power source, and then give us a couple of ports on a static IP.

So I called a few of the local ISPs. Comium was never able to really give me a straight answer. They said they could do it, but I never talked to anyone who could make that kind of executive decision. The IT staff at Cellcom were all about it. They knew it was a super simple request, then their management got a hold of it.  They said that, “these requests will demand from my engineer some expensive time”, and that they’d charge us $500 a week. Which is about 20 times the cost it would be in the states for one-thousandth the bandwidth. So we didn’t go with them. Then I spoke with Libtelco, and they said since we only needed it for two weeks that they’d do it for free out of good will. Now that’s marketing. Cellcom could learn a thing or two from them. I never got around to calling Lonestar and I don’t have any contacts there. To my knowledge this is the first instance of collation hosting in Liberia.

Libtelco did a great job. I came in with our laptop server, set it on top of their rack, plugged it in, set the IP address info and it worked perfectly. Took all of 15 minutes. As far as I know there was no down time and the connection was fast (for Liberia). There staff was also very professional and competent, which you just don’t get enough of here. So I’m all about Libtelco for hosting, though It’ll be interesting to know what they rates will be for more permanent hosting.

Assuming the rates are good I hope they’ll attract other customers. It’d be cool to see a real data center arise in Monrovia. I know the trend at the moment is for each ministry or business to host their own servers. Which might make sense if you just want a file server, but for someone that needs their box out on the net with five-nines up time, you’re better off letting someone else who has triplicate redundant UPSs and massive battery back-ups handle it for you.

Also on the IT front here in Liberia is the need for more international bandwidth and interconnection. On that note, some unsubstantiated rumors: On the lack of bandwidth front I’ve heard rumors that MTN, the South African telcom giant that owns Lonestar, has expressed interest in paying about $10 million to plug into the SAT-3 fiberoptic cable that runs off the coast of Liberia. As I understand it the Liberian government has yet to OK this. I believe the official line is that the government wants to be sure that this doesn’t give Lonestar an unfair monopoly on bandwidth in the country, and the Liberian Telecom Authority has recently dealt with some internal issues and needs some time to figure out how they’ll handle this. I’ve been told that Libtelco would also like to do this, but being a state run organization of a country that currently has Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) status, they can’t take out a loan to make it happen.

There are also two new cables being laid off the Liberian coast, GLO-1 and Main one. Here’s an article with more info on Main One here. There’s some buzz that Liberia will connect to one of these. Also some people are looking at setting up a microwave station in San Pedro, Cote D’ Ivoire, the closes place fiber optic cable reaches, and beaming some bandwidth over the boarder to Harper, Maryland County and then distribute it to the rest of Liberia.

As I mentioned above there are voice interconnects between the major operators, but nothing for data. So if I want to send a file from my computer using a Comium internet connection to someone using Cellcom, my file goes to Comiums satellite, lands in Lebanon, goes through the internet, then back up through another satellite to Cellcom’s office and then on to its destination. Obviously this is tremendously inefficient. It forces the file to go through the bottle neck of a satellite twice. A more optimal route would be for the file to go through my computer, to Comium’s office, over to Cellcom’s office and then to it’s destination. Already Libtelco, Comium, Cellcom, and probably Lonestar have networks in country that could handle way more bandwidth than their teeny tiny VSAT connections can support. If all the operators were connected content hosted in Liberia could be accessed much faster than is currently possible.

What is needed is a central point for each of the major ISPs in Liberia to link up. This is called a peering point or an IXP. At the moment no one has stepped up to do this. I know Libtelco would like to do this, but the politics of the state owned operator having control of that make it a hard sell. I don’t know why the other operators haven’t moved towards something like this. I imagine they’re probably being a little competitive with each other and focused on other short term gains.  Either way, it’d be cool to see it happen.
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